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"There's always faces out there," she says hopefully, in a beautiful Southern accent. Still, Dedra has a full-time job at Wendy's to fall back on. She worked at McDonald's until recently, but "people there were in such a hurry and tended to be hateful," she says. Clearly, there's no room for hate in this couple's life plan: They met at church in Kentucky and plan to return after graduation to start a mom-and-pop hair salon. In a twist on the theme, Thomas will do the up-dos, perms and bobs, and Dedra will handle the men's cuts. "I just think men tend to be more nicer," she explains.

Although Eric, with his hair-dude hauteur, looks chic-salon-ready, his plans are far from concrete. "I know I'll be starving for a while," he says, "because maybe I'll apprentice downtown? Or I'll do the full-service salon thing? I can't seem to picture myself in a chop shop." While contemplating the lack of artistry at those franchise clip joints, Eric leafs through Cosmopolitan, looking for looks.

And here comes one: on Miss Deb, the hair-cutting instructor. Miss Deb's own wild black hair is waist-length, nicely accentuating her two-inch-long fingernails painted black or purple or both--"and they're not acrylics, they're mine," she says. Her eye makeup is straight out of Bewitched--think Endora--but her classroom manner is strictly Gomer Pyle--think Sergeant Carter.

"Let's cut hair, not fingers," she says crisply at her second seminar of the day.

"Remember, girls, I am looking for nice, clean sections," she admonishes.
"Hey, we're dropping too many combs here," she barks.
"Oh, Miss Deb, help me," one new student pleads. "My doll's hair was feeling all good till I shampooed her, and now look at it--it's all sticky."

Miss Deb fixes the sticky girl with a withering look. "Did you shampoo her?" she asks.

"Yes, Miss Deb, and everything was fine until--"
"Did you use conditioner?"
"Uh, no."

This is a simple mistake, but it is not the kind you want to make when Miss Deb is in charge.

"Because I'm an asshole," Miss Deb explains cheerfully. "I demand a lot. I demand perfection, actually. And I don't give out all that much praise. Every once in a great while I might say, `That's a damn good job.' See, I don't just like hair, I love hair. I was doing my family's hair since I was little."

She gave her older and younger sisters perms. Her mother, a migrant worker turned school janitor, got a new 'do from her daughter. And in her spare time, Miss Deb tried to straighten her own mass of hair with perm solution, in order to look like Cher. "That was those days," she recalls. "Now I just look like myself, me, me, me--that's all you see."

At Ultima, the Miss Deb look is accepted unconditionally. It used to be more problematic. "Back about twelve years ago, I was out of work," Miss Deb recalls, "and I was riding around on my motorcycle looking for a job. But when you're riding without a helmet, your hair's gonna look bad, and people thought I didn't know what I was doing."

Instead of a salon job, she got her instructor's license and found, as if by fate, the perfect niche. "The thing is, the students like me," she says. "They bring me things, they feed me, they try to bribe me--which doesn't work. I had one student buy me a $300 leather jacket after she graduated."

Which was nice, but it didn't entirely erase the stress of forcing students to be all that they can be, so that they can "graduate and pass their boards and get a job," Miss Deb says. "People ask me if anything wonderful ever happens to my students. What could be more wonderful than that?"

As Miss Deb explains her philosophy, she is working on her oldest sister--whose name, no kidding, is Sister. As brusque as Miss Deb might be in the classroom, she is a salon seductress behind the chair, and Sister's heavily made-up eyes are beginning to close from the sheer bliss of it all. "Sister used to wear her hair dyed purple, if you can imagine," Miss Deb says as she snips, "but now we're doing her nice and natural, nice and natural."

Those words echo beneath my still-perky perm when I return to Ultima College the next evening as a patron. I am assigned to a student named Shawna, who is working under the supervision of Miss Deb.

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Robin Chotzinoff
Contact: Robin Chotzinoff